For us, this first visit to Berlin was going to be mainly about one thing – the history. There’s so much of it here and, at least in comparison to many of the other cities in Europe we’ve seen so far, it still feels recent. (When you’re visiting cities like Bath, whose main attraction dates back to 60AD, 25 years ago starts feeling pretty current!) So far, our trip had centered mostly on the history surrounding WWII and the Holocaust, but after our tour through Berlin’s underground air raid bunkers, we were ready to move on to something that is very much still visible on the city’s landscape – the Berlin Wall.
There are many pieces of the Berlin Wall still standing, scattered throughout the city, but the Berlin Wall Memorial is the only place where the border fortifications have been preserved to look almost exactly as they did before the fall in 1989. Located on Bernauer Straße, we were able to walk here from our previous stop – Berliner Unterwelten in Gesundbrunnen – and only got lost once. (And actually, that detour wasn’t so much a bad thing, but I’ll get to that in a minute.)
Berlin Wall Memorial
We weren’t in any hurry when we finally arrived at the Berlin Wall Memorial site, so instead of heading straight to the monument across from the Documentation Center (the main attraction), we took our time on the path that leads up to it. It’s essentially just a history lesson covering the building of the wall, life after the wall went up, and then the destruction of the wall, but it really helped to set the scene for us by the time we reached the actual memorial at the end.
The path is easy to find – we just followed the line of steel poles that represent the former path of the wall along Bernauer Straße – and has loads of interesting things to stop and look at along the way. This area was particularly affected by the construction of the wall because it fractured the street right down the center, separating family and friends onto opposite sides. In the days just after the wall started going up here, many people on the eastern side of the wall tried to escape to the west by jumping from the windows of residential buildings into nets held by people standing on the other side of the wall. (As such, some of the first escape injuries and casualties trace back to this location.) Even after these initial escape routes were blocked, Bernauer Straße still remained famous for being a popular location for those wishing to make a getaway thanks to the successful underground tunnels dug here beneath the wall.
We started at the beginning of the path by checking out a bird’s eye view model of the Berlin Wall Memorial grounds (first picture above) and then followed the photographic timeline (my favorite) that took us through about thirty years of history in pretty spectacular black and white photos. There are some things to see along the way with pretty wild stories behind them – Tunnel 57, for one, where 57 people, the largest group to escape at one time, made their way from East to West Berlin, and also the last remaining piece of the Reconciliation Church, the church that was rendered completely inaccessible after the construction of the wall and became a symbol of Berlin’s division until the East German government had it blown to pieces.
Between the many stories and historical exhibits, by the time we made it to the end of the path, I felt like I could have aced an exam on the Berlin Wall. (After traveling through Europe for the past year and a half, I wish I could go back and take European History in college again. My grades would be so much better now.)
At the end, we crossed the street to the Documentation Center and climbed the stairs to the top so we could see over into the memorial – an enclosed, 70-meter stretch of the border strip that is the only complete section of the wall still standing today. Until we visited Berlin, I’d always imagined the Berlin Wall to be just that – a really tall, thick wall. I didn’t realize what they were calling a “wall” was actually a much larger space made up of a concrete outer wall, an inner wall, and a wide space between known as the “death strip” until we visited the memorial. (See, this is why I made such poor grades in history in school.)
The wall didn’t always look like this, of course. It was continually growing, expanding, and changing over the course of its lifetime. This was the final generation of the wall, constructed to prevent almost any kind of escape. It was while standing here that I realized everything we’d walked through so far had once been part of the death strip, an area so named because of the landmines and tripwires that were buried under the gravel to catch people who were trying to escape. The border guards patrolling the border strip were also under orders to shoot anyone found in the strip between the two walls. (After hearing that, my respect for the people brave enough to attempt escape increased tremendously!)
As a first-time visitor to Berlin, I was really glad we set plenty of time aside to visit the memorial here. It’s not the prettiest stretch of wall (that honor belongs to the East Side Gallery), but it’s the best place I know of to really get a good look at what it might have been like to live in Berlin during the years it was divided. The city has done a brilliant job putting it together and, thankfully, they’ve made it free to anyone who wants to visit.
I mentioned earlier about getting lost on our way to the memorial – I wanted to come back to that because what we found was actually pretty cool. On our way over, we were very close to the memorial, but we made one wrong turn and before too long had no idea where we were, nor were there any people around to ask. We kept walking and eventually found ourselves in Mauerpark (Wall Park), a grassy public park that was also formerly part of the Berlin Wall’s death strip. None of this I knew at the time. I just saw people spray painting a wall and was like, hey, I bet that would make some cool pictures. We ended up hanging around for awhile and walking through the park (because you know I love a good park) before backtracking and trying to find our way back to our original destination.
When I got home, I Googled our location to figure out where we had been and discovered the quiet, little park we found is actually a pretty happening place on Sundays. There’s a huge second-hand market that sets up shop here, as well as karaoke in the amphitheater. And we missed it by one day! (For the record, I’m bummed about the market, not the karaoke. I would never subject the nice people of Berlin to that.) Anyway, I wanted to pass that little piece of info on to you, in case you’re planning to visit the Berlin Wall Memorial. Since the park is so close to the memorial, it might be worth it to plan your visit on a Sunday if you like markets…or singing in front of strangers.
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